Cultivated Days | domestic and wild
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domestic and wild

A thick blanket of clouds floats by low in the sky casting a gray gloom. A wind felt neither as warm nor cold rattles the screens and leaves flutter to the ground calling to mind the coming flurries of snow that will soon turn south and drift down from Siberia. The first frost will descend in Hokkaido and creep along Japan’s narrow sweep to arrive here in Kyushu in a few weeks. One morning, after a clear and windless night, we will wake to a delicate silver veil draped across a still and slumbering landscape. Though we can see it coming we are lucky that our latitude delays the onset of winter. Here it feels like autumn is still at the wheel.

A couple of weeks ago I wandered into the little vegetable market across from the fish market to look for mukago, the small brown bulbils that form at the base of leaves along the vine of the Japanese yam. The market has an open storefront that faces Nakamachi, a busy market street in downtown Karatsu, with only an awning to shade the produce. I ducked inside and before my eyes had adjusted the old proprietress thrust a mandarin orange into my hand. Here, eat this, she said. It’s a gift. Her husband sat in a far corner, tucked behind the register, cracking and peeling ginkgo nuts for customers who would prefer to avoid such a tedious task. I thanked her and asked after mukago.

Mukago are small and tender, almost bean like. The aerial tubers hold a concentrated flavor of the mountain potato it would propagate if planted. They have the slightest trace of a pleasant bitterness and echo the earthy flavor of a potato, but these tastes are light as they grow in the air and not in the soil. Their texture on the tooth reminds me of taro root, more smooth and silky than starchy. Mukago can start the meal as an appetizer, either fried in olive oil with a generous douse of good coarse sea salt, or fried in light sesame oil and flavored with soy. A bowl of them still hot from the pan offers a salty, oily satisfaction that pairs well with any one of Japan’s fairly indistinguishable lager-type beers. Or mukago can end a meal in takikomi gohan, seasonal ingredients cooked into seasoned rice. Cooking the yam berries together with grains of polished new rice showcases their delicate flavor. 

Eating mukago calls to mind afternoon walks around these hillsides. The leaves have yellowed by now and are falling. But along the mountain roads we see the flossy vines of jinenjo crawling along the line of fences or twining through the jungly mass of trailing plants matted over trees and shrubs. Their papery pods flutter like medallions and a few remaining mukago hold on. I am happiest at this intersection of the domestic and the wild. I feel a spark of joy every time I can connect my daily life to the majestic natural world outside my door through cooking and eating. Ingredients first impress at the table where they are sensual, beautiful to behold, delicious on the tongue, and warm in the belly. From there they entertain the intellect. They spark a curiosity and I find deep satisfaction in understanding where the things I eat come from. Mukago has been that delicious entertainment most recently.

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  • Kathryn Camicia
    Posted at 16:09h, 21 November

    Beautifully written. Wish I could taste them.

    • Prairie
      Posted at 23:05h, 21 November

      Kathryn, thank you. Perhaps you will taste them one day.

  • Alana VanDerwerker
    Posted at 16:22h, 21 November

    The edge of wild (the tangled toughness, the ecstatic spark of light and color, the fullness of breath) and the domestic table of sustenance is exquisite and the essence of living. Thank you for this delicate, sustaining celebration of your end of autumn this year. Deeply appreciated.

    • Prairie
      Posted at 23:04h, 21 November

      Alana, It really is the essence of living. Thank you for summing it up so well.

  • Yuriko Hashimoto
    Posted at 19:14h, 21 November

    When I was in Japan last month,I found Mukago attached to a vine entangled in my garden fence
    and remembered the pleasure of harvesting it when I was a child.
    So I understand what you were very happy when you found it on the mountain road in Karatsu.

    I have not known a recipe other than Mukago Gohan until now, but I would like to eat a fried Mukago someday.

    Beautiful pictures and heartfelt essays about the interesting Japanese food culture you wrote always make me happy.

    • Prairie
      Posted at 23:03h, 21 November

      Yuriko san, I’m happy to hear you harvested these as a child. I wish I had memories like that from my childhood too!

  • Elizabeth Andoh
    Posted at 01:17h, 22 November

    In Tokyo I engage in what I call “urban foraging” though I admit its a fine line between public domain (the side street I walk down on my way to the train station) and private property (the garden in which the vine from which the mukago come is planted). Somehow I rationalize that the garden’s owner — for whatever reason — has chosen not to harvest his or her own crop of potato buds as they roll into the street. So, its open game for those passing by (that’s me). Truth be told, I am on the look-out for telltale yellowed vines from early November on. I know that once I spot them entangled among other greenery (the garden in question has a hedge, most likely to create privacy) the pleasures of city-rice, the name I give to my takikomi gohan featuring city-grown mukago, is just a few days away. This year, I’ve enjoyed city-rice twice!

  • Mora Chartrand
    Posted at 16:59h, 23 November

    I almost wept seeing the photos of mukago rice. Enjoying it last year at Arutokoro was one of the many highlights of our Karatsu trip. Thank for your most expressive writing about this tiny, wild treat. Kansha always… Mora